US cutting back troops in Pakistan

The US military said it has begun pulling some American troops out of Pakistan after Islamabad requested a smaller presence, amid tensions over a US raid against Osama bin Laden.

The Pakistani government had asked for a scaling back of the US contingent of more than 200 troops earlier this month, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said.

“We were recently (within the past 2 weeks) notified in writing that the government of Pakistan wished for the US to reduce its footprint in Pakistan. Accordingly, we have begun those reductions,” Lapan said in a statement.

He did not say how many troops would be pulled out. Most of the US personnel are special forces that train and advise Pakistani troops as part of a long-running effort to counter Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants.

The withdrawal of some US troops underscored the crisis between the two countries in the aftermath of the US raid that killed bin Laden on May 2, despite US diplomatic efforts to smooth over tensions.

The difficult relationship between Pakistan and the United States has come under severe strain after US commandos swooped in on the Al-Qaeda chief’s compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, home to a military academy.

Days after the raid, Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani said that any similar raid on Pakistani soil would prompt a review of military cooperation with the United States and informed army commanders of a decision to reduce the strength of US military personnel to “the minimum level.”

Even before the operation, Pakistani officials had told the Americans they wanted about 20 to 30 of the roughly 150 special forces troops to be withdrawn after a CIA employee shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, according to a recent report in the Washington Post.

Pakistan had demanded a smaller US presence after months of haggling over the fate of the employee, Raymond Davis, who was initially charged with murder, it said.

Davis was eventually released in March after the families of those killed were paid “blood money.”

Furious US lawmakers are demanding a re-evaluation of relations in the wake of the bin Laden raid, charging that Pakistan is playing a double-game of supporting Islamist militants while enjoying a steady stream of aid from the heavily indebted United States.

But the Obama administration needs the Pakistani port of Karachi and its roads to supply US forces in landlocked Afghanistan.

Washington also wants to keep US intelligence officers on the ground in Pakistan and ensure nuclear weapons stay out of the hands of extremists.

For its part, Pakistan sees some militant groups as a useful hedge against its archfoe India, and wants to preserve its influence in neighboring Afghanistan as a strategic counterweight.

Some US officials and analysts say Pakistan and the United States still need each other, and that underlying interests will persuade both sides to try to avoid a total collapse in relations.

Pakistan backed Afghanistan’s hardline Taliban regime but switched sides overnight following the September 11, 2001 attacks by Al-Qaeda.

Since then, the United States has provided some $18 billion in assistance to Pakistan.

Most of the aid has gone to the military, but with Obama’s support, Congress approved a five-year, $7.5 billion aid program in 2009 aimed at building schools, roads and democratic institutions.

By: Dan De Luce
AFP

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